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The year of the deplorable: how the alt-right is hijacking conservative politics

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Alt-right online cover

To understand the modern American political landscape, one must have some familiarity with Pepe the Frog.

In 2005, cartoonist Matt Furie introduced the world to Pepe, a smiling, anthropomorphic frog, in his absurdist webcomic “Boy’s Club.” The original Pepe was goofy, a character whose laid-back attitude and stoner vibe made his image infinitely reproducible in the form of memes. His signature catchphrase, “feels good, man,” solidified his appeal.

Variations on Pepe abounded. Though his initial popularity as a meme was apolitical, earlier this year a sect of conservative social media users began using him as a vehicle for right-wing ideologies. Pepe began repping anti-immigration policy and Donald Trump. He continued to go even further right, and conservative trolls and genuine neo-Nazis alike began using him for jokes and propaganda.

By September, he had been designated a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. His signature grin grew sinister as images of concentration camps and riots were placed in the background.

Pepe’s use by these groups was so widespread that he is now inseparable from a burgeoning political movement. He has become a symbol of the “alternative right,” a loose conglomerate of young conservatives who call the internet their home base, who run the spectrum from snotty moderates to ultranationalists.

The alt-right is not the traditional Republican Party and may, in fact, signal the death of the GOP as we know it. It eliminates the prudishness and undercurrent of Christianity in favor of shock humor and internet trolling. It is built largely on anti-immigration policy, American nationalism and a profound disdain for so-called political correctness, though the specifics change from person to person. While it’s difficult to determine demographics, most analysts agree that it is largely young, white and male.

The alt-right’s focus is largely national, rallying support around Donald Trump rather than local or state politicians. They found a home on social media, particularly on websites like Twitter, where ideas can be communicated simply. The alt-right often dominates discourse on websites like 4Chan, where the politics subforum rapidly became a breeding ground for far-right dialogue.

Many media outlets have associated the alt-right with white supremacy, and while this is true of many of its members, it is not necessarily representative of the movement as a whole. It is difficult to determine whether that kind of rhetoric is genuine or merely intended to shock.

The alt-right was developed from a simultaneous disdain for perceived weakness in the GOP and leftists (referred to pejoratively as “social justice warriors”). It mobilized most significantly at the start of Donald Trump’s presidential bid and has only grown in visibility since. Its key players — Twitter pundits, bloggers, podcasters — have gained massive audiences. Conservative news outlets like Breitbart, authors like Milo Yiannopolous and bloggers like Roosh V have refined alt-right ideology for mass consumption.

The alt-right is the polar opposite of old school conservatism, which veiled its bias with genteel language and pocket handkerchiefs. 

The alt-right’s use of Pepe and other memes perfectly summarizes its modus operandi. Its members are crass. They value political incorrectness. Above all, they relish in taking the piss out of almost anyone, whether liberals or establishment conservatives. They are the new-school right wing, and they are quickly becoming a national force.

Alt-right statistic

Conservatives and I have traditionally not played well together, despite the fact that I used to be one. A quick perusal of my (very public) social media accounts would reveal a wealth of posts criticizing both the GOP and the alt-right. I have engaged in plenty of arguments, online and in real life, over a wide variety of issues. All of these conversations have been very public.

I also grew up spending a lot of time on the internet, and so the proliferation of right-wing kids spewing racial slurs, misogyny and xenophobia for shock value is nothing new. I am an ex-4Channer, and were it not for my own gender identity exploration, I would likely still be calling everyone online a fag.

Though I am now a dyed-in-the-wool leftist, I am also extraordinarily fascinated by, and often impressed with, the alt-right. Despite great variation in its members’ political views, their ideas are communicated with simplicity and relatability. Their use of modern culture, like memes, absurdist humor and the internet at large, is practically unparalleled. They have taken the language of millennials and warped it for their benefit.

Jeffrey Greene, a professor of political science at the University of Montana, said the alt-right was likely born out of the vacuum left by increasingly polarizing partisan politics.

“The establishment sort of took over the Republican Party,” Greene said.

He believes that as liberalism began to dominate the political landscape in the post-Bush years, conservatives began to push back. However, the new right found itself no longer aligning with establishment conservatives, due to disagreements over social issues and its more “rambunctious” attitude.

“It’s a backlash against both the establishment in the Republican Party and the quick growth of rapid progressive liberalism among the left,” Greene said.

Greene sees a direct connection between liberalism in academics and the development of the alt-right.

“We have one voice speaking, and we don’t have the other voice so much anymore,” Greene said. “Academics kind of went down the tubes heading to progressive liberalism, and that got lost.”

This left libertarian and conservative students without a significant voice.

It doesn’t help that establishment conservatism has not traditionally appealed to young voters. Jocelyn Kiley and Michael Dimock reported for the Pew Research Center in 2014 that roughly 40 percent of millennials identify as primarily liberal. Only 15 percent claim they are primarily conservative.

Though many young students believe in conservative ideals, the Republican Party has failed spectacularly at youth outreach. The GOP infamously created an ad series in 2014 featuring a man named “Scott G.,” a hip Republican who sported a leather jacket, designer glasses and espoused the virtue of lowering gas taxes. This kind of pandering has never appealed to millennials, a generation known for its keen sense of irony and political engagement.

“There’s this generational gap where … [conservatives], they don’t have any fluency in irony or humor,” said Felix Biederman, a contributing writer for Deadspin and co-host of the leftist podcast “Chapo Trap House.”

Biederman argues that this is the key difference between run-of-the-mill conservatives and the alt-right.

“If you look at this generation, they kind of know how to write jokes,” Biederman said. “They kind of know how to be ironic. They know exactly how to fuck with members of the media.”

This is why the shock value of their jokes is so important. The anti-semitic, racist and misogynistic attitudes underlying much of the alt-right’s rhetoric are ultimately just internet gallows humor. But it does communicate genuine ideas — disdain for feminism, race politics and political correctness on college campuses among them.

For a specific kind of person, though, this brand of humor is a large part of the alt-right’s appeal. Leftist politics have traditionally dominated the comedy world — one only needs to look at the late night talk show circuit’s coverage of this election for evidence of this. The alt-right, though, eschews the need for mainstream representation by creating its own edgier and more provocative content.

“When you adopt this sort of absurdist or ironic detachment, then you get people’s guard down,” said Ricky Vaughn, a conservative Twitter pundit recently suspended from the website. Vaughn uses a pseudonym, naming himself after Charlie Sheen’s character in the 1989 baseball comedy “Major League.”

“Nowadays, nobody holds anything sacred. They are very detached from sincerity,” Vaughn said. “It no longer works to be extremely sincere. You have to use the language of the day, which is memes and internet culture.”

Vaughn is known for his brash commentary on political issues. He helped popularize the term “cuckservative,” a combination of “cuckold” and “conservative” referring to GOP members as weakly bowing to the liberal agenda. The phrase attacks masculinity, implying that any man who doesn’t fight for his country’s values may as well be letting his wife sleep with other men.

This harshness is par for the course among the alt-right. Vaughn says that words like “cuckservative” are designed to provoke and expose conservative weakness without worrying about sensitivity or political correctness.

But for those unfamiliar with internet culture, these jokes are much less easily written off. The proliferation of phobic rhetoric in alt-right speech caused a public denunciation from Hillary Clinton and frequently causes them to be labeled as white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

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Christian Grant, a self proclaimed right-wing comedian, poses like Pepe the Frog. "Alt Right is the cultural response to social justice warriors. It will hurt your fee-fees, it will rustle your jimmies and it will save the West using dank memes," Grant said.

For members of the alt-right, though, that’s merely part of the fun. They view what they do as using the tools of modern leftists against them. Christian Grant, a 25-year-old University of Montana student, points to what he sees as “kill all men”-style feminist rhetoric as an example of a double standard held by leftists regarding extreme speech used to make a point.

“Why are they the only ones who get to say these hardcore statements and totally get away with it?” Grant said. ”Don’t act all angry when the alt-right turns back and does the same thing, because this is very new from the right wing ­— going to that level that the feminists have been going on for decades.”

The use of the left’s perceived tactics are central to the alt-right’s effectiveness. Mike Cernovich, 39, a conservative Twitter pundit and author of the men’s self-help book “Gorilla Mindset,” has a certain admiration for liberal brashness. He cites mockery of George W. Bush’s speech mistakes — termed “Bushisms” — as particularly effective.

“Was it fair? Well, it’s politics,” Cernovich said. “Nothing’s fair.”

Cernovich said that the alt-right is doing something very similar this election cycle with Hillary Clinton.

“Every time she sneezes — hey, I wonder if she’s about to have a stroke,” Cernovich said. “That’s what the left has done for decades. Now we’re using the same tactics.” (Cernovich mentioned that he believes Clinton is afflicted with some sort of neurological condition, namely Parkinson’s disease.)

His admiration for the left’s tactics, though, does not extend to an admiration for their ideology. Cernovich and the alt-right believe that American morality has been defined largely by liberal beliefs and policy — hence the disdain for political correctness.

“We define good or bad based on the left,” Cernovich said. “If I say something offensive, stop right there. What do you mean when you say something offensive? Offensive to whom?”

“We reject political orthodoxy,” Cernovich said. “We reject all status structures ... created largely by the left.”

This is perhaps why the alt-right has rallied around a central political figure: Donald Trump. Cernovich said it is Trump’s lack of respect for the institution he is trying to break into that makes him so appealing.

“Pushback, actual fighter, somebody who’s not gonna let the mainstream media bully them like Mitt Romney,” Cernovich said. “Somebody who calls out the media hoaxes and media lies.”

Trump’s unapologetic disdain for pleasantries has earned him the support of a wealth of conservatives. No one, though, loves him more than the alt-right. Though Trump does not explicitly support the movement, he did appoint the former executive chairman of Breitbart News as his campaign’s chief executive officer. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes Breitbart as the “media arm” of the alt-right.

Trump’s brand of rhetoric, too, bears remarkable resemblance to the trolling tactics of the alt-right — in a lot of ways, he would fit right at home on 4Chan or the more conservative parts of a website like Reddit.

Biederman thinks that this could be the future of politics.

“He was just savaging these shitty career politicians,” Biederman said. “The times when he would tell the truth and do it in a fucking brutal way — I think that’s the future.”

Biederman believes that Americans will likely no longer value politeness from their politicians.

“If I would have to tell one thing to anyone, one type of politician who’s wanting to succeed,” Biederman said. “‘Just be really fucking mean.’ Because people really like that. I think aggression and putting your neck out there to shit on somebody, that’s the future.”

Hillary Clinton publicly denounced the alt-right in a speech given Aug. 25. The New York Times shared a tweet from user @LordoftheEdge that simply stated, “Thanks for the free PR Hillary. The #AltRight will long remember the day you helped make us into the real right.”

For the alt-right, any publicity is good publicity. Its members relish any opportunity to have their views relayed. They absorb their bad reputation like ballistics gel, wearing the insults hurled at them with pride. A recent trend has seen many alt-right Twitter users updating their display names and bios to include the word “deplorable,” after Clinton used that word to describe “half” of Trump’s supporters.

“Attention is influence,” Mike Cernovich said. “The alternative right is now the right.”

Ricky Vaughn sees this election as a tipping point. The weakness of the parties that the alt-right rallies against, he believes, will soon go by the wayside in favor of confrontation and brashness.

“The Republican Party and the Democratic Party are going to have to start paying attention to the national interest again, or they’re going to lose,” Vaughn said. “We’re going to see the end of this elitist neoconservative, neoliberal agenda no matter who wins the election.”